For any nattering nabobs of negativity…
The public reading was unrelentingly grim. Very good writing, perhaps, but the two readers’ subject matters were child abuse, death, and an apocalyptic view of global warming.
They should have served cyanide-laced Kool-Aid at the break, maybe with a few pretzels. An open mic followed.
I read a humorous poem.
People laughed. We need to laugh. Maybe I would rather make people laugh than write critically acclaimed work. I write seriously, too, but we seem to be in a humorless time. I want to laugh.
After I watched Everything, Everywhere All at Once I watched some snippets of absurdist films from the 1960s, and 70s, and remembered how much humor was a co-conspirator with the movements of those times. Humor can highlight the absurdity of the situation, while we are laughing. One of the most rousing songs of the Viet Nam War era was “And It’s One, Two, Three what are we fighting for, don’t ask me I don’t give a damn, next stop is Viet Nam.” The song is also known as the Fish Cheer — Country Joe and the Fish sang it.
Mash, the novel and then the movie, was famously about the Korean War and found resonance in the culture with the Vietnam War playing out in the foreground. It is hilarious. Not all of its humor will wear well with changing times, as is true for Blazing Saddles, but taking risks is part of good humor — and good writing.
My favorite comedic writers include Tom Robbins of Even Cowgirls Get the Blues fame. I reread Jitterbug Perfume and thought it was funnier than I remembered. His prose is rollicking, his plot points are silly, and his wordplay is outstanding.
I love David Sedaris, too, even though I can find some of his humor verging on mean. He takes risks. He has a delightful, misanthropic streak, finding humor in the pathos. He has written about his sister’s suicide, has written about his father’s dying. The story I remember laughing loudest to was his story about his benign tumor, surgically removed and saved, to feed it to a tortoise. His humor is the totally unexpected — now who would do that?
Anne Lamott is self-deprecating. She writes of recovery from addiction, spiritual matters, and facing the tough stuff of life and overcoming. Websites are full of single lines that are held up as meaningful and humorous quotations:
“You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”
― Anne Lamott
I have seen both Anne Lamott and David Sedaris in performance — part of the rock star status granted to our best-loved writers is the book tour which is performance, to sold-out rooms and concert halls. While this reading to an audience seems far from the solitary act of writing, David Sedaris was making notes when a bit hit or missed. Oh, by the way, he wore a tutu.
As a former New Yorker, I also paid to see Fran Liebowitz do her bit. She and I are almost age peers; I lived in New York City when she was actually writing and publishing. She has found a second life as someone talking, after her friend, Martin Scorsese, interviewed her for a documentary series streaming on some services (Pretend It’s a City.) She also talked about her great friendship with Toni Morrison. Now if the only service she provided is being a great friend to the likes of Scorsese and Morrison and making them laugh, well, that’s a life well-lived.
I saw her in a Portland, Oregon auditorium. I thought the razor-sharp, acerbic humor that would have been catnip to New Yorkers was blander for a tour across the continent, but most writers who haven’t written anything new in decades could do worse.
I looked up tips about how to write funny, but analyzing funny kills funny.
For example, Spiro Agnew, Vice President, famously critiqued the “nattering nabobs of negativity,” which William Safire, speechwriter, wrote. Now, “nattering nabobs of negativity” could have been funny, but Spiro Agnew was about as unfunny as you can get.
When I looked up humor on The Writing Cooperative platform, this story by
Stacy Kam made sense to me (of course it’s based on David Sedaris).
David Sedaris’ class is different from others in that he doesn’t tell you how to write something, he tells you how he came about it. He doesn’t say “go observe people”, he tells you how, when, and what he observed and how he put it onto pen and paper.
So, I won’t tell you how to do funny.
Read funny. Then write funny, even if it’s just a twisted sentence, in your next story. Even if it’s a serious story, or maybe especially if it has a serious point.